The emotional fallout of Susan Boyle's unexpected and disappointing defeat on Saturday night was clearly devastating. The front-runner failed to take first place on the finale of Britain"s Got Talent, losing to a teenage dance group called Diversity. It's hard to imagine how this somewhat shy and private middle-aged woman must have felt to have been suddenly catapulted into celebrity status and then knocked down, with 19 million viewers watching the debacle on TV. On stage, she handled the loss with grace but there were rumors of a series of backstage tantrums and cursing in response to the intense pressures she experienced as part of the competition.
According to media reports, one night later, Ms. Boyle had to be taken by ambulance from her hotel room to a London mental hospital run by the Priory Group. Under the Mental Health Act of 1983, someone in the UK can be detained for a maximum of 72 hours until that individual can be examined and treated by mental health professionals. But before any assessment could have taken place, there were media reports that hinted that Boyle was suffering from "mental exhaustion" and a "nervous breakdown." If she is diagnosed with a mental disorder, this wouldn't be surprising given the enormous amount of stress to which she was subjected.
To me, that Susan Boyle's emotional unraveling immediately became fodder for the media is a far greater loss than coming in second in the competition. She involuntarily lost her right to privacy and while pundits were previously preoccupied with her appearance and dress, now there will be relentless questions and conjecture about her mental status, before and subsequent to her achieving the status of celebrity.
Despite decades of brain research that has proven that mental disorders are no-fault illnesses, the stigma associated with these disorders still remains pervasive. When someone is diagnosed with cancer or heart disease, people rally around the individual. When someone experiences the symptoms of an emotional disorder, their friends and opportunities for the future seem to disappear in tandem.
We can only hope that the entertainment handlers and the public who warmly embraced Ms. Boyle, an ordinary woman with exceptional talent, will continue to back her. She needs friendship and support more than ever before. Handled well, this can be a teachable moment for us all.
Irene S. Levine, PhD is a freelance journalist and author. She holds an appointment as a professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine and is working on a book about female friendships, Best Friends Forever: Surviving A Break-up With Your Best Friend, that will be published by Overlook Press in September, 2009. She recently co-authored Schizophrenia for Dummies (Wiley, 2008). She also blogs about female friendships at The Friendship Blog.